Driver Spotlight: Wolfgang von Trips

The evening before the Italian Grand Prix of 1961, Wolfgang von Trips, speaking on the dangers of racing, replied to a journalist: “It could happen tomorrow. That’s the thing about this business, you never know.” Von Trips was always going to be Germany’s first World Champion, until that promise, along with the lives of fifteen spectators, was cut short after a tangle of wheels with Jim Clark.

Von Trips ahead of the 1961 Italian Grand Prix – Copyright © The Cahier Archive

Wolfgang Alexander Albert Eduard Maximilian Graf Berghe von Trips was born in into nobility, as the last in one of the oldest noble bloodlines of the Niederrhein, in 1928. His family, which lived in castle Burg Hemmersbach, wanted Wolfgang to study agriculture, and to later manage a large family-owned company.

During his studies, Wolfgang attended many races at the Nurburgring, admired Bernd Rosemeyer, and hoped one day to race himself. His ambitions were delayed by the coming of the Second World War. Wolfgang, who could write Latin and speak French and Italian, next to German, learned English from the American soldiers who occupied the family’s castle. Shortly after the war he attained his driving licence and drove his family’s land on a BMW 500 motorbike. His parents disproved him pursuing a racing career, and so, when he was 25 years old, Wolfgang competed in his first race in 1953 under the pseudonym Alex Linther in a Volkswagen Beetle. He then bought a Porsche and promptly finished second the GT1.5 class in the Mille Miglia of 1954.

Alfred Neubauer, the illustrious racing manager of Mercedes, recognised the talent Von Trips possessed. He offered him a spot in the Mercedes sports car team for 1955, thus setting out a path to Formula 1 with the German manufacturer. All things went according to plan, but after the 1955 Le Mans disaster where 82 spectators died, Mercedes pulled out of all racing activities, including Formula 1. Wolfgang reverted back to Porsche, finishing fifth in the 1956 Le Mans.

Wolfgang, meanwhile, had to contend with deteriorating health. He developed meningitis, was partially deaf, and his face was sometimes partial paralysed. He also developed diabetes, thus he always carried something to eat with him inside the car.

It was Enzo Ferrari who took the young count under his wings and prepped him for the last race of the 1956 season, the Italian Grand Prix. However, when his steering broke, Wolfgang violently crashed his Ferrari D50 during the final practice session. He was send in into the trees at Curva Grande, breaking his arm and postponing his debut to the 1957 Argentine Grand Prix.

The 1957 season, Wolfgang raced in Argentina, Monaco and Monza, only scoring points in the latter with a third place. Wolfgang also competed in the last Mille Miglia, in 1957, finishing second overal.

Von Trips and Hill, at the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix – Copyright © The Cahier Archive

Two more seasons as part-time Ferrari driver followed, but in 1960, now 32 years old and a fully matured F1 driver, Wolfgang was promoted to a full-time Ferrari drive in the so-so Ferrari Dino 246. He finished the season in 7th place, with 10 points.

Von Trips at the German Grand Prix, 1961 – Copyright © The Cahier Archive
Enzo Ferrari was quoted as saying “horses pull the car, rather than push it”, but Ferrari’s entry to the 1961 season was their mid-engined F1 car, the 156F1, affectionately dubbed the ‘sharknose’.

Wolfgang started the season with a crash in Monaco but things went his way in the Dutch Grand Prix, where he won his first Formula 1 race, becoming the first German winner since Hermann Lang in 1939. Wolfgang won by the slightest of margins – just one second ahead of his teammate Phil Hill, who turned into his main championship rival. The result was reversed at the Belgian Grand Prix, when Phil Hill won the race a second ahead of Von Trips.

Wolfgang retired at the French Grand Prix, but finished first and second in the British and German Grand Prix. Wolfgang thus traveled to the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, knowing a victory would make him world champion.

On Sunday, the Formula 1 cars lined up on the grid at 3PM, Von Trips in pole position, Hill in fourth. The mighty Ferrari’s occupied the first four positions on the grid, yet all got a slow getaway due to their gear ratios being set extremely long for the Monza straights. Von Trips in particular made a bad start and dropped all the way back to fifth, behind Jim Clark, who started from seventh place.

Von Trips passed Clark halfway on the second lap at the exit of Lesmo, losing momentum. The next corner was the full throttle Vialone. Then, on their way to Parabolica, the two jostled for position, when suddenly the two cars touched wheels.

While Clark’s Lotus came to a harmless standstill, Von Trips’ Ferrari was launched onto the bank and into the crowds. There it hit the chain fence, the car disintegrating and swerved back onto the track. Von Trips was no longer inside it. He was thrown from his car and killed, along with 11 spectators. Four more would succumb to their injuries in the following days.

Jim Clark would later talk about how it all unfolded; “We were about hundred metres from the beginning of the curve. I was preparing to overtake him and my front wheels were almost level with his back wheel as he started to brake. Suddenly he pulled over towards me and he ran right into the side of me. I honestly don’t think he realised I was there. I am sure that, when he passed me earlier, he had decided his was the faster car and I would be left behind.”

Meanwhile the race went on, unaware of the events that just occured. Phil Hill won the race, and with Von Trips’ accident it meant he was the 1961 world champion. There were no celebrations, as the American summarised, “I wanted to win, but not at this price.”

Von Trips was buried in the family vault in Hammersbach Cemetery. His family sold Wolfgang’s Ferrari 250 GT. Shortly afterwards there was a breakaway from Ferrari to form the new ATS team, including the ‘sharknose’ designer, Carlos Chiti. Enzo Ferrari, who never dwelled on the past, later demanded all remaining ‘sharknoses’ to be destroyed. Parts were re-used, while others were cut up and placed under the cement of the factory floor during its construction.

There is a monumental difference between winning the World Championship and almost winning it. Perhaps this is why little is written, or remembered, of Wolfgang von Trips. But in the year of his death he established a go-kart racetrack near Kerpen. Decades later, it was leased by Rolf Schumacher. His son made his first laps there. Thirty-four years after the tragic race at Monza, Michael Schumacher went on fulfil Von Trips’ promise of becoming Germany’s first World Champion in Formula 1.

Written on the burial monument of Von Trips, in Latin, is ‘In Morte Vita’ – ‘In death, there is life.’

Von Trips at the 1961 Dutch Grand Prix – Copyright © The Cahier Archive